Nation in N central Europe with borders on Germany to the W, the Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and the Kaliningrad oblast of Russia to the E, Czech Republic and Slovakia to the S, and the Baltic Sea to the N. Few nations have had more changes of boundaries, status, and rulers than has Poland . It has appeared on maps, disappeared, and reappeared. It has shrunk and expand ed, been strong and weak; but always the Polish people have clung to their ethnic and national heritage.
The area of Poland was inhabited by the Ostrogoths in the mid-fourth century a.d. The Slavs arrived c. 400 and were then absorbed by the Huns from c. 435 to c. 455 and by the Avars c. 560 to c. 625. The kingdom of Great Moravia controlled southern Poland c. 890. Beginning in 960 the Piast dynasty provided the first rulers of the area that makes up modern Poland . Prince Mieszko I was baptized a Roman Catholic and accepted the overlordship of the German emperor in 967. Boleslav III Wrymouth was the first to take the title of king in 1025. He conquered the pagan Pomeranian Poles of the Baltic coast.
Beginning in 1138, the kingdom broke up into several smaller principalities; the Mongols devastated the country in 1241. Reunification began c. 1320. Ladislaus II (reigned 1386–1434) began the Jagiello dynasty, which lasted until 1572. During this time the Teutonic Knights, a German crusading order, gained some of northern Poland but were defeated at the Battle of Tannenberg in 1410. In the 16th century Poland entered a golden age. Closely allied with Lithuania, it dominated an empire that reached from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. With the end of the Jagiello dynasty, however, the nobles, among whom there was seldom agreement on public issues, made the establishment of another strong monarchy impossible.
In the 17th century Poland was involved in numerous wars with Russia, Sweden, and the Ottoman Turks; and by the end of this period it was virtually at the mercy of Russia, Prussia, and Austria.
Poland was ravished several times during the Great Northern War of 1700 to 1721, and suffered further in the War of the Polish Succession of 1733 to 1735. In 1772 Russia, Prussia, and Austria partitioned Poland , taking most of its territory. Again in 1792 these three nations carved up the country, leaving only a central part independent, and in 1795 Poland disappeared entirely. In 1814 the Congress of Vienna shifted boundaries so as to give Russia more power over the dismembered land . The Poles revolted in 1830, but Russia defeated them in 1831. Insurrections broke out in 1846, 1848, and 1863, but all were put down.
The defeat of Germany and Austria-Hungary in World War I, together with the military collapse of Russia, gave Poland independence once more on November 9, 1918. Poland fought Russia in 1920 and by a treaty in 1921 gained some territory. Caught between the communist USSR and Nazi Germany, and allied with France and Great Britain, Poland was invaded by Germany on September 1, 1939, after refusing Hitler’s demand to give up the port city of Gdansk (Danzig). On September 17 the USSR, having cynically made a treaty with the Nazis in August, invaded from the E, and Poland was partitioned again for the remainder of World War II. There was strong resistance, especially in the Warsaw uprising of August to October 1944, but Poland was not freed until early 1945.
Poland ’s boundaries were changed after the war, with the USSR retaining some prewar territory in the E and Poland receiving German land in the W. Russian domination of this part of Europe prevented any democratic processes from developing in establishing a new government, and in 1952 Poland became a communist state. Since then its domestic and foreign policies have been close to those of the USSR. After mass demonstrations in 1956 there was some relaxation of the oppressive rule, but in the 1960s Communist Party controls were strengthened. Although there was much industrialization after World War II, agriculture lagged, and the economy suffered from high prices and shortages. This led to rioting in late 1970 and some reforms. The bishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, became Pope John Paul II in 1978, and his subsequent visit to Poland in June 1979, drew several crowds of over a million people. In 1980, unrest resulted in strikes and the formation of a labor union, Solidarity, which the government felt forced to recognize in August 1980, a most unusual step for a communist government. The government was reshuffled and General Wojciech Jaruzelski became the general secretary. However, as debate heightened over labor’s political and economic rights, the government declared martial law on December 13, 1981, jailed union leaders, and reinstituted a repressive government. In October 1982 Poland ’s martial-law government banned Solidarity, but demonstrations, strikes, and opposition continued despite repression.
Martial law was lifted in 1984, Jaruzelski became president in 1985, and all imprisoned Solidarity members were released by 1986. Solidarity, still outlawed, remained a popular force as the economy failed to improve. In 1989 Solidarity was again legalized, and political reforms were negotiated that led to free elections. Solidarity won a majority in both houses of the parliament and Tadeusz Mazowiecki was named prime minister. In 1990 Solidarity leader Lech Wa asa was elected president. The Solidarity-led government adopted radical market reforms, but the growing pains of the new democracy were severe. From 1990 through 1996 Poland had eight prime ministers. In the late 1990s Poland ’s economy started to turn around. Poland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1999. The country went through a severe recession between 2001 and 2004 as the country made budget cuts to help qualify for membership in the European Union. Poland joined the European Union in 2004, and is undergoing an economic boom with increasing foreign investment and trade.